Tag Archives: adult learners

Teaching Across Generations – Part I

9 Jul

One challenge in teaching is designing a learning environment for students who span multiple generations.  I’ll focus on this challenge in two blog posts.  This first post will look more closely at “non-traditional” or “adult” learners as a demographic group, and suggest ways to support them in our classes.  The second post will look at the so-called generational differences between students of different ages.  Across both posts, I’ll include cautions for classifying students into neatly defined categories and suggest some strategies for supporting the learning of all students.

Who are Adult / Non-traditional Students?

Some educational theorists propose that adult students learn in qualitatively different ways than do traditionally-aged students, and that we need to take these differences into account when we teach.  To begin, what do I mean when I talk about adult/non-traditional students?  There are two factors typically employed to define this group. One factor is age, another factor is life experience. 

With adulthood defined as “taking responsibility for what you do and who you are and not blaming others” (Counseling Center), twenty-eight is the age of adulthood according to some developmental theories.  Considering age as a factor, adult students would be 28 years and older.  Prior to adulthood, developmental theories posit, we experience a stage of development that is neither adolescence nor adulthood (roughly 18 – 28 years old) labeled as Emerging Adulthood.  This younger range of this group is the traditionally-aged student.

According to Jeffrey Arnett, who introduced the Emerging Adult concept, Emerging Adulthood is a stage of exploration during which individuals struggle with developing intellectual and social competence, managing their emotions, moving through autonomy toward independence, and developing purpose & integrity (Counseling Center).

Life experience, according to Jovita Ross-Gordon (“Research on Adult Learners”), is another factor that separates a traditional from a non-traditional student.  Certain life experiences such as delayed entry into college, being a caregiver, being a single parent, and/or having full time employment, are more in keeping with the characteristics of a non-traditional student, regardless of age.

As a caution, even though the differences between traditional and non-traditional/adult learners described above may be real, this does not allow us to define any individual student within a group.  A certain non-traditionally aged student may share more characteristics with traditionally-aged students and vice versa.  A student enrolled in an ROTC program and one entering school after several National Guard deployment may have much in common.  A traditional first year student who provides care for siblings may be balancing home and school life in much the same way as a adult learner entering a new career alongside providing care to aging parents.  Meanwhile, similarly aged traditional students may have entered school with different senses of how to organize their days based on life experience as a “latch key kid” or child of a “helicopter parent.”

Adult learning theory posits that part of the role of formal education is to support development into adulthood. This can be done by creating a learning environment that “provides a balance of challenge and support” (Counseling Center). In general, I believe this is an appropriate guideline for all students.  Of course, our task is to observe so that we might learn when too much support stifles, and too little support frustrates, the unique group of students in our particular classes.  Might a teacher, for example, offer some choice of topic and audience for a research paper as an appropriate challenge while having students sign up for specific due dates in a specified week as a way to provide structured deadlines?  The flexibility you allow students should depend on your assignment, your discipline, and your students; however, providing clear instructions for all assignments is a good way to provide support.

How can adult learning theories inform our teaching?

An overarching component of most of adult learning theories is that experience is what molds adult learning.  According to Malcolm Knowles, valuing the experience of adult students is critically important:

“In any situation in which adults’ experience is ignored or devalued, they perceive this as not rejecting just their experience, but rejecting them as persons” (quoted in Brookfield).

Image from "Can Constructivist Principals be Applied to Adult Learning?"

Image from “Can Constructivist Principals be Applied to Adult Learning?”

Asking about this experience at the beginning of a course is a good way to communicate to your students that this is important to you.  A first-day-of-class survey could quickly provide you with that information, which you can draw upon throughout the semester.

In one colleague’s undergraduate experience teachers in her major each used a first-day survey to gather specific course-relevant information: one teacher drew on the information to link in-class theory discussions to out-of-class life experiences, another collated aspects of the collected data to share with students in a discussion to illuminate and personalize course learning goals, and another teacher drew on information shared to fine-tune the major paper assignment in light of the expressed interests, life experiences, and career goals of the students enrolled in the course that term.

Below are some additional factors we may consider in designing courses that enroll adult/non-traditional students.  Alongside ideas drawn from Ross-Gordon’s “Adult Learners in the Classroom,” I’ve added suggestions for implementation that take into account the needs of traditionally aged students as well.

  • Provide opportunities for adults to exercise self-direction.  One way to do this would be to allow for student choice in an assignment topic or mode of delivery i.e. written report, live presentation, or website creation.
  • Recognize and foster relationships between academic learning and learning in the larger world. Elicit examples from students based on their social and work experiences. You can also use your survey responses (described above) to craft examples that directly relate to the experiences of some of your adult students.
  • Recognize that the classroom typically serves as the focal point of the academic experience.  Help promote adult students’ identities as learners in your institution.  To accomplish this you might refer to an institutional mission (land grant college, liberal arts) to give students a sense of inclusion on a scale larger than your class.
  • Balance flexible and structured experiences. This might be accomplished by dividing a complex assignment into parts over the course of a semester and provide students with feedback on each of the parts.
  • Create opportunities for early success to generate confidence. In my experience (as both an adult learner and a teacher!) some adult/non-traditional students may lack confidence in their ability to “keep up” with their traditionally-aged counterparts.  Address this with an activity/assignment early on that will allow everyone to succeed (with support).  Provide positive feedback to all students publicly that indicates that this prepares them to do well on future assignments.
  • Be sensitive to individual differences. This is true for all teaching situations, I believe.  One way to address this is to collect feedback early in the semester about how students perceive how they are learning in your course.  Make adjustments as needed.

In the next post I’ll talk about generational differences and how Millennial learners may differ from Baby Boomers and provide strategies you can use to appeal to all learners.


Counseling Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Emerging Adulthood.” www.mnsu.edu/counseling/facultyemergingadulthood.html.

Brookfield, Stephen. “The Idea of Adult Learning and Education.” Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995.  220-227.

Ross-Gordon, Jovita. “Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that is No Longer Nontraditional by in Peer Review, 13.1 (Winter 2011): http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi11/prwi11_rossgordon.cfm.

Ross-Gordon, Jovita. “Adult Learners in the Classroom.” New Directions for Student Services, 102 (2003) 43 – 52.  Currently available at http://robert-vroman.com/resources/Adult%20Learners%20in%20the%20Classroom.pdf

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